Posts by Tag / Thought (269)

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Crossing My Mind

I don’t think I’ve ever been as conflicted about a game as I am about CrossCode.

The aesthetic is right out of the golden age of mid-90’s SNES RPGs, highly reminiscent of titles like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. The music and sound effects are well-suited and the world is lush with little details (my favorite being the high-level players that run by ignoring you, or sit and have private conversations in hard-to-reach areas - this is exactly what happens in real MMOs) adding up to a cozy and satisfying atmosphere and a world that’s a joy to inhabit.

The characterization and storytelling are also deeply compelling. Again, there’s such an impressive level of detail here - I adore Emilie’s stories about wildlife that the enemies remind her of and her joyful reaction to laser bridges, for example. And the amount of characterization that comes across with Lea’s aggressively limited vocabulary is amazing.

But then so much about the game’s mechanical design feels horrible to me. Why in the world would you put so much emphasis on jumping puzzles in a 3D space that’s viewed as 2D pixel art, obscuring where surfaces are relative to each other (is that platform taller or just further north)? Why make them so long and complex that they sometimes require backtracking through multiple screens to get where you need to go when it’s so easy to misjudge a jump, fall off, and need to start all over?

Why is so much of this game a puzzle platformer where you need to think several steps ahead and apply precision positioning and aiming with split-second timing - when your aiming device is an analog stick and the 2D pixel art can (again) obscure the required angles? Why create situations where the player is virtually guaranteed to spend frustrating time trying to implement the puzzle solution after they’ve already done the interesting part of figuring out what they have to do?

Why is there so much to keep track of? Why lock the best equipment behind an unwieldy loot-trading system with intermediate levels of otherwise-worthless trade goods that make it harder to see what your actual options are, adding obscurity without adding depth? Why put chests the player can’t open yet in hard-to-reach places, punishing their exploration instead of rewarding it? Why have areas that are so complex and hard to navigate and require so much backtracking for those treasures or returning to spread-out quest givers and then give the player a terrible map that represents each zone as a featureless rectangle?

I spend a lot of time in CrossCode wishing I were done with the current bit (my god the first dungeon drags on and on) and just exploring the multi-level maze of the game’s second town made me want to rage-quit. And yet I can’t stop playing and when I’m not playing I can’t stop thinking about playing. I love being in this world that tickles my nostalgia both for RPGs and MMOs, I love spending time with these characters, and I want to find out what happens to them. I just hope the game doesn’t become completely intolerable along the way.

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This is the difficulty select screen for...

This is the difficulty select screen for SteamWorld Heist on PS4. Higher difficulties increase punishment (mission failure penalty) and challenge/strictness (enemy numbers, damage, and health) which is par for the course. However, they also provide an experience bonus.

I find this sort of thing super frustrating and a clear indication that the game doesn’t understand what difficulty settings are for. They’re for letting players opt in to an experience appropriate to their capabilities and interest. By having higher difficulties be more punishing but award more experience, SteamWorld Heist conflates this with a risk/reward trade-off that really should be handled separately. It’s now less clear what difficulty level to pick - a player wishing to reduce the amount of time and effort required by combat may now have to grind through more encounters, while a highly skilled player may find the higher difficulties actually easier.

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Animal Crossing Isn’t For Everybody

Here’s the thing that really frustrates me about Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the reason I’m writing all these posts about how it effectively trolls certain types of players. The way the game is marketed and the way it gets talked about, it’s easy to think that if you don’t enjoy playing Animal Crossing the way it clearly wants to be played, you are playing the game wrong, when in fact it’s completely possible that the game’s highly-deliberate and opinionated design just doesn’t work for you. It looks like a game anybody ought to be able to pick up and enjoy, but it’s actually designed for a very specific type of play experience and thus a very specific type of player.

This is especially insidious given the game’s positioning as chill and casual. If you’re an anxious person and you try to unwind with Animal Crossing but find it impossible to relax with, you might conclude that you are bad at relaxing which will just make everything worse.

So please, keep this in mind: If you find Animal Crossing’s resistance to optimization, untrackable objectives with frequent interruptions, and artificial delays frustrating, it’s not your fault. You haven’t failed the game - the game has failed you.

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Animal Crossing’s Endgame Trolls Focusers Even More

With Animal Crossing: New Horizons’s increased tools for town customization - the ability to actually shape the land and water, place furniture and decorations outdoors, and decide where almost every building goes - many people have done crazily impressive things with their islands that are wonderful to behold. These island-scale projects seem to be what you are intended to do once you reach the “endgame” and unlock the terraforming tools. But I found that when I reached that point, I had very little interest in undertaking such projects and was largely done with the game. And I think I’ve figured out why.

Animal Crossing does a lot to deliberately slow the player down, but once you start working on projects as large-scale as terraforming the delays and interruptions both skyrocket. Not only will each project take a long time, but you’ll frequently have to put it down unfinished and remember what work remains to be done.

The first factor is that the terraforming tools themselves are slow and clunky to work with. You don’t get some kind of Sim City-style god mode; you have to physically walk to each grid square (traversing any cliffs or water along the way), carefully position and point yourself, and use the correct terraforming tool. This process is at least free - infrastructure changes (moving houses or shops, building slopes or bridges, or demolishing slopes and bridges) all have costs in the tens or hundreds of thousands of bells, which slows down how much of that you can do, although that’s at least in an organic way that allows you to set and work toward goals.

More interruptive is the fact that these infrastructure changes also have arbitrary delays and limitations attached. You can only be building or demolishing one bridge or slope at a time and it will take at least one day each. You can only move one house or shop per day and it will also take one day each. Perhaps worst of all, you can only plan to place a house or shop in a place that is currently clear.

Want to move a house one square to the right? That will require two moves over two days and a separate house-sized clear area to temporarily hold the house. It will cost a total of 100,000 bells.

Want to swap two houses? Three moves, three days, a house-sized holding area, and 150,000 bells.

Want to raise or lower the ground where some buildings currently are? That will require two moves, two days, a house-sized holding area, and 100,000 bells per building, with terraforming in between.

On top of this is the largely random distribution of furniture and decoration items making it difficult to plan to use specific ones, especially in large numbers. If there’s something you can buy but it’s not currently at the store (or if it’s in limited supply) you can mail-order it - but you can only order five items per day and they won’t arrive until the next day.

Add it all up and a large-scale project like renovating your island can easily take weeks and this seems to be by design. Having a long-term goal and poking at it a bit further every day can be pleasant and satisfying - but to focusers like me, the fact that it’s broken into multiple days by arbitrary interruptions and it’s not possible to track your progress makes it far less pleasant than it could be.

The kicker is that it’s extremely difficult and expensive to experiment with changes (which is especially important for people like me with poor spatial visualization ability). If I think I want ten streetlights in an area, I mail-order them over two days and have them all on the third day. If I try them out and then decide I want garden lamps instead, I’ve just wasted the bells but more importantly two full days of mail orders. And when I did do a medium-scale project to create a little suburb area for four villager houses, after a few days of moves I realized the houses were each one square to the left of where I wanted them - and I just left them there rather than spend 400,000 bells and eight days fixing it.

When I played Dragon Quest Builders (and this also applies to Minecraft, Terraria, etc. etc.) and I wanted to redesign my town, even if it took a lot of time and resources I could do it in a single continuous effort, keeping the goals in my active memory. And at one point I redid a town in Dragon Quest Builders, decided I didn’t like it, and simply reloaded my save.

But if I want to redesign my island in Animal Crossing, I have to make a long-term plan, commit to it without a chance to test it out, and keep track of it over at least several days as it gets interrupted over and over. And since Animal Crossing auto-saves and has no capability to back up a save, any design I end up disliking will take just as much time, effort, and bells to undo.

I like the idea of terraforming and renovating my entire island. I can see why for some players it’s a source of additional enjoyment that extends the game’s lifespan by dozens of hours. But for players like me, it’s a giant chore that doesn’t seem worth it.

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A conversation between two designers for Danganronpa 2

“You know how sometimes you’re trying to figure something out so you ask yourself a series of questions? But before you can ask yourself each question you have to imagine yourself skateboarding down a tunnel in space? And if you don’t skateboard well enough you run out of time and can’t answer your own question that you’re asking yourself?”

“…no. No, that has never happened to me.”

“Oh. Well how about that thing where someone asks you a question and you think you know the answer but before you can form the word you have to think of a bunch of random letters and pull out the right ones in the right order to spell the word? And sometimes you think of too many letters and they crash into each other and explode so even though you know the word you can’t say it and you stay silent so all your friends convict you of murder even though no one was even talking about you?”

“What? No! No, that has never happened to anyone, ever!”

“…oh. You’re not going to like what I spent today working on, then.”

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The Platform is the Playstyle: Missing the Point

So, while I love the Nintendo Switch, there is something about it that makes me sad: the death of pointer-based games on console and handheld.

In 2004, the Nintendo DS came out. At first, people didn’t know what to make of its touchscreen and stylus. It felt gimmicky. But then games like Trauma Center: Under the Knife, Elite Beat Agents, and The World Ends with You (to name just a few) showed us what you could do with it - things that you couldn’t do on any other game system. Then in 2006 came the Wii, showing that by using a Wiimote and sensor bar you could do the same things on a larger scale on your living room TV. Everyone talked about the Wii’s waggle, but the pointer was the real game-changer, as seen in games like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (not to mention three more Trauma Center games). You could even play light gun games like Sin and Punishment: Star Successor or Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles with no extra equipment!

In 2011 we got the 3DS, an improved DS that allowed for new experiments like Kid Icarus: Uprising and in 2012 the Wii U combined both the Wiimote/sensor pointer and the stylus/touchscreen pointer. Not only could the Wii U play its own pointer-based games and Wii pointer-based games, but through the Virtual Console it could play dozens of excellent DS games by using the TV as the top screen and the GamePad as the touchscreen.

But the Wii U failed, and the hybrid console Switch has replaced both the Wii U and the DS line. It technically has a touchscreen, but it’s easy to forget - most games don’t use it because it’s not accessible while the Switch is docked. The system doesn’t even come with a stylus.

As a result, an entire interaction style is lost to console games. To port any of these games to Switch would require completely reworking them for a very different experience. Sony and Microsoft never adopted these interaction methods on a large scale - Xbox had its own Kinect experiment, and PlayStation Move was never a major player. The only place you can find reasonable pointer-based games now is on PC via mouse, which is not quite the same.

I’ve written before about how the convergence of gaming platforms will mean more homogeneity of game experiences. This is why that makes me sad. There were some great games on DS, Wii, 3DS, and Wii U that are now unlikely to receive any real follow-up and will be increasingly difficult to find and experience as their native hardware ages out, and which can’t even be preserved via ports without losing a lot of what made them special.

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#gaming #video games #games preservation #nintendo switch #wii u #wii #nintendo 3ds #nintendo ds

Tags: Thought, TOPIC: Preservation

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Apple Arcade Seeks Engagement

From Apple Cancels Some Arcade Games in Strategy Shift To Keep Subscribers:

“[Apple] scrapped development contracts with multiple game studios earlier this year . . . . [A]n Apple Arcade creative producer told some developers that their upcoming games didn’t have the level of ‘engagement’ Apple is seeking. . . Apple is increasingly interested in titles that will keep users hooked, so subscribers stay beyond the free trial of the service. . .”

I was a little worried things would move in this direction, but was hoping they wouldn’t. As helpful as it is to set up an ecosystem where games can’t rely on IAP and developers don’t have to think about price, the subscription model does easily lend itself to optimizing for engagement, which causes its own problems.

I’m really hoping they’re at least looking for more complex metrics than just daily active users or something.

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Clicker Heroes 2 isn’t for me... yet.

I revisited Clicker Heroes 2 in Early Access now that they’ve replaced Gilding with Ascending to see if that addressed my concerns from before. And, I mean, it kinda does? Ascending still basically resets your skills in exchange for a damage multiplier, but you retain the stat boosts from most skill nodes and even a few of the abilities, so you can still make gradual progress in the direction of a particular build across multiple ascensions.

But I realized what the real problem is for me in Clicker Heroes 2 compared to my favorite idle games: you never get anything else to fill the downtime.

It’s common in idle/clicker games for your focus to sort of zoom out over time. At first you’re focusing on individual clicks or actions, then you’re focused on upgrades or automation, and so on. The time between meaningful choices gradually increases - you start out clicking near-constantly and eventually reach a point where it makes sense to put it down for minutes or hours and come back periodically to spend your accumulated wealth.

In some idle games, there’s something else to go do while you’re waiting for that wealth to accumulate - something that ties in to the economic systems but can be basically any kind of gameplay. Some of the most famous examples have been essentially roguelikes, there’s a dual-stick shooter and a town builder in my list of examples a couple paragraphs up as well.

But in Clicker Heroes 2, there isn’t something else. The thing to do is just - put the game down and come back later. And the only thing you do every time you come back is spend the wealth to increase the accumulation of wealth for the next time you come back.

This is kind of a weird thing to criticize since it’s basically the core loop of the genre, but for me it makes it hard to stay engaged. Spending a couple of minutes on upkeep just to make sure I’ll have something to spend a couple of minutes on again later starts feeling empty pretty quick. Once I’ve gotten to the point where I have an actual character build going, there’s no longer anything to sink my teeth into.

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So if you start Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive...

So if you start Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition on a Switch where you also have a save file for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, you get an optional bonus: you can start the game with 100,000 G.

This kind of reward has always confused me. It’s not, like, a Rex outfit for Shulk or something, which is a pattern I’ve seen in other games that makes sense to me - a cosmetic reward that’s a nice touch for the people who can get it. Instead, it’s just a big pile of currency - which means this is a balance question.

Positioning the extra money as a reward implies they think the game is better if you start with it - in which case, why don’t you start with it by default? Or even if this is a case where some players would probably enjoy it and others wouldn’t, then why only give that choice to people who have already played a sequel to this game?

One way or another, I feel like the game has been (very slightly) worsened for one group or another in order to enable a reward that potentially has significant effects for early-game balance and pacing. I feel like the intentions here were probably good, but the results are just kind of weird.

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Animal Crossing Trolls Focusers

I wrote recently that players can be divided into “multitaskers” who don’t mind interruptive context-switching and “focusers” who find it disruptive and unpleasant. And now, just as I argued that Animal Crossing effectively trolls completionists, I’m going to argue that it also effectively trolls focusers.

Inventory limits and equipment durability are the most common way. Running out of pocket space while you’re in the middle of something (catching bugs, fishing, harvesting fruit, shaking trees, hitting rocks, etc.) is obnoxious in all the usual ways, interrupting your fun with a chore you now have to deal with before you can go back to doing what you wanted to do. But if you’re a focuser, you’ve also got the interrupted goal unpleasantly on pause in the back of your mind the whole time.

Equipment breaking is similar. If you lose your axe in the middle of chopping wood, or break your pole while fishing, or break your shovel while there are still rocks to hit, or whatever, now you have to run back to a crafting station (and possibly home to your storage if you aren’t keeping materials elsewhere) and craft a replacement before you can continue (and man is it frustrating to see a rare bug while you have no net or a balloon gift while you have no slingshot). Though in some ways it’s even worse than the inventory problem, because there are no visible durability meters and unless you’re keeping careful track of your tool use it’s hard to predict when one will break. You can craft and carry extras, but tools don’t stack so doing this means you’ll run out of inventory space more often, and you’re just trading off one interruption against another.

On top of this are the mid-scale daily activities - digging up four fossils, hitting six rocks, talking to ten villagers, shaking every tree, etc. It’s very easy to get interrupted while doing this - maybe you’re shaking trees when you see a balloon gift, or you’re running from rock to rock when you see a fast-flying bug and need to chase it around. Making sure you talk to each villager every day is perhaps the hardest one since they wander around unpredictably and it can be hard to keep track of who you’ve found so far.

Again, if you’re a multitasker this probably won’t bother you, but if you’re a focuser it’ll be frustrating to keep in your head who you’ve talked to and which rocks you’ve hit and how many fossils you’ve found. For the first weeks of my time in New Horizons, I found that this led me to do things like a “rock pass” and a “tree pass” over my island during which I focused fully on that goal, not letting myself get distracted and sometimes literally writing down which villagers I’d seen and which I still needed to find. It turned the game from one I could relax with into one I had to pursue with dogged focus until I finished the once-a-day tasks.

Eventually I realized that there are mobile apps that allow you to create daily checklists prepopulated with the common tasks so you can just keep the app open on your phone and tap the villagers as you talk to them and so forth. This lets you offload the mental overhead of keeping track of those things and just relax and enjoy.

It would have been fairly easy to include this sort of functionality directly in the game itself, where it could auto-update and be even easier and not require separate hardware. It’s not uncommon for games to have that sort of tracker. It seems likely to me that Animal Crossing’s designers deliberately chose not to include it (and continue making that choice with each sequel). For multitaskers, such a feature would probably feel like it was pushing the player into completionism and away from just relaxing and enjoying the game - while the very presence of that feature is required for focusers to relax and enjoy the game.

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